I visit botanical gardens because the surprises I find there are agreeable to me. As you grow older, you become increasingly dependent on what is familiar and would rather not be surprised, if you can help it. However, when it comes to plants, I still welcome the unpredictable. Glimpsing a glorious tree is the ultimate of unexpected pleasures, jolting you into a sudden relationship with one of God’s arboreal masterpieces. In the words of Joyce Kilmer: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada last week, I was privileged to be the beneficiary of such a surprise. Not many plants were in bloom, not counting the pulchritudinous camellias, yet still I wandered into the mostly roseless rose garden.
After circling the garden, I was heading back to the main entrance when, lo and behold, clusters of deep-cerise nearly red blossoms hung in droves from a leafless tree about 25 feet tall. I could not for the life of me decipher its identity until I saw its bark, which bore the unmistakable lenticels seen on the bark of cherry trees.
Lenticels, named for their similarity in shape to a lens, are bark equivalents to the microscopic stomata or pores found on leaves. They allow gas exchange between the atmosphere and cells just beneath the surface bark.
I had never seen a cherry tree with pendulous blossoms and learned that this was a bellflower or Taiwan cherry, it being native to the island nation than bears its name. I wondered why more of these trees are not seen. Around this time of year, several types of ornamental or flowering fruit trees burst into bloom. The two most popular types of ornamental fruit trees – whose fruit is usually inedible – are evergreen pear (Pyrus kawakamii) and flowering plum (Prunus cerasifera cultivars), also known as purple-leaf plum because of their bronzish purple foliage. Flowering peach (Prunus persica) cultivars such as `Peppermint,’ whose blossoms are pink and white, and the unusually gnarled Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) are also occasionally seen.
Bellflower cherry trees bloom in tandem with Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), a durable blue-mauve flowered ground cover. Serbian bellflower is unique among ground covers in being both long-lasting and noninvasive. Typically, a ground cover that lives for many years, such as ivy, becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Its roots go everywhere and its foliage suffocates other plants. But Serbian bellflower is easily uprooted. It even can be dug up in clumps and moved around the garden to cover bare spots. Serbian bellflower is not for full sun but mingles well in partially sunny to shady areas, a pleasant complimentary note to the floral fanfare of hydrangeas or camellias.
Speaking of camellias, now is the moment to appreciate them most. A forest is as much a mystical as a visual experience, and the camellia forest at Descanso Gardens illustrates the point. For maximum impact I suggest you visit during the week, when fewer people are there.
You will feel that you have been taken back in time. Although they are indigenous to Asia, the camellias here have grown tall enough and old enough (they may live for more than a century) to make them seem as native as the oak trees overhead. Oak tree mulch acidifies soil and appears to have something to do with the camellias’ success at Descanso Gardens. Yet around the house, camellias also will grow well in almost any north- or east-facing exposure with good ambient or filtered light and well-drained soil.
There are two major camellia species: Camellia japonica have the look of extremely ruffled roses and they are the ones whose bloom is currently approaching its peak. Camellia sasanqua produce smaller, single-tiered flowers and bloom most heavily in fall and early winter. Sasanquas can take much more sun than japonicas and lend themselves to espalier training. Flowers of sasanquas also tend to be more fragrant than those of japonicas.
Camellia japonica plants were first imported to Europe in the 16th century in an attempt to break Portugal’s monopoly on the import of tea from China. The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is a cousin of Camellia japonica and thus there was reason to believe that the leaves of japonica would yield a potable brew as well. Alas, japonicas were a disappointment where tea production was concerned, yet the flowers that developed were a wonderful surprise and the mistaken tea plant soon became a popular greenhouse and garden species.
Camellia is named after Georg Josef Kamel, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary, botanist and pharmacist, who made his reputation extracting medicinal compounds from plants growing in the Philippine Islands, his adopted home.
Although the roses were not blooming at Descanso Gardens, two companion plants in the rose garden are worthy of note. One is a an early blooming daffodil that looks a lot like `February Gold’ and the other is carpet bugle (Ajuga sp.) with deep crimson foliage. A drought-tolerant ground cover with snowflake foliage (Geranium macrorrhizum) is also on display.
Lest I forget, winter is also the season for first sightings of hellebores, a golden yellow cultivar of which has just made its blooming debut at Descanso Gardens.
Tip of the Week: Boxleaf azara is a small tree with an arching, whimsical growth habit that deserves wider use. Unlike cold-sensitive camellias, azara is hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It has strongly fragrant flowers whose scent, depending on whois sniffing them, resembles either chocolate or vanilla. Flowers are followed by orange fruit and wood is a smooth light brown. They perform best in partial sun. The species growing at Descanso appears to be Azara heterophylla or Azara microphylla `Variegata.’